Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

April 20, 2009

Giving sector should invest in social media

By Todd Cohen

The giving sector, especially in the face of the continuing economic crisis, needs to retool its model for charitable giving and fundraising.

Nonprofits, for example, should start looking at building social media into their overall fundraising and communication strategies.

Often reluctant to move beyond traditional strategies, whether or not those actually produce positive results, nonprofits should look at social-media tools that are changing the way people communicate, connect and spur one another to action.

“If you don’t get started now, you’re going to be playing catch-up,” says Beth Kanter, a social-media strategist who is serving as scholar in residence for nonprofits and social media at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Calif.

Consider Facebook, the wildly-popular online meeting place for young people that has been attracting a growing number of Baby Boomers.

Membership on the site hit 200 million active users in April, double the total just last August.

Or consider the unprecedented use of social media that Barack Obama made in raising money and recruiting supporters in his successful 2008 presidential campaign.

Kanter says nonprofits should be strategic about their use of social media, starting with small experiments linked to their marketing or fundraising plans.

At 3:01 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2007, one minute after the Case Foundation launched a social-media contest, promising to contribute $50,000 each to the four social-media campaigns that raised the most money, Kanter entered the contest, using several tests of social-media tools and strategies.

And while conducting those tests, she also was blogging to her network of readers about the progress she was making.

Through GlobalGiving, using an application on its site, along with email and blogging, she raised $43,000.

Altogether, including seven different campaigns she launched, plus the Case Foundation match, she now has raised over $215,000 for The Sharing Foundation, a charity that works to address the needs of children in Cambodia living in poverty.

The key was “starting small, figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “And by doing it over and over, I built up a community of donors who donate through social media.”

In addition to starting small, Kanter says, nonprofits should pay close attention to what people are saying about their cause or organization in the blogosphere.

“You listen and you learn and you adapt,” says Kanter, who with Allison Fine is co-writing a book, to be published by Wiley, about how social media are reshaping the way nonprofits operate, creating a more networked nonprofit.

It also is important to remember that social media do not represent an “either-or” strategy, Kanter says. “It’s both-and.”

And nonprofits cannot afford to ignore new social media, she says.

“Nonprofits putter along and, yes, they tend to keep doing what works,” she says, “but they also need to understand that the old way of fundraising is not going to work forever.”

While nonprofits should “not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she says, they cannot stand still and simply expect old fundraising tools are all they will need in world increasingly driven by social media.

Nonprofits also should not use the failing economy as an excuse to avoid social media.

“Look at everything you’re doing in fundraising and marketing,” she says. “If you’ve been going on automatic pilot, look at the effectiveness of everything, and make room for a small amount of experimentation. Stop doing stuff that doesn’t work.”

As they regroup and rethink how they do business to survive the economic crisis, nonprofits of course need to get back to basics.

But innovation always has been basic to the giving sector, and nonprofits need to begin testing social media and building those strategies into the way they operate.


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